wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: roundup

Lately books briefly books.

I read books, and then that morning or the next I write about them. This exercise has become important to me (much like biking, actually), and since 2014 I’ve managed to keep up even when I’ve been unable to focus on ‘proper’ writing.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Is it possible that this book, by some unfathomable reverse causality, inspired both Amisare and Allworlds after the fact? No matter. I was surprised, in the banally chronological event, by how little I cared about Invisible Cities. Reading Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller in college was one of my peak bookwise experiences — I’d ride the Blue Line to Logan Airport and read in the terminal, back when you could do that sort of thing; Nicole has my copy, which I guess is her copy now — and of course Cosmicomics burrowed into my brain in high school (I borrowed/stole Jeremy Ward’s copy). But I found Invisible Cities cute, which is to say off-putting. My private metric: if I start reading something before bed, but feel the need to bring it into my daylight reading, it’s got something going on. Cities never made it across the gap. Perhaps there’s a mirror-Wally in a mirror-Cambridge superposed on this one, who only reads mirror-Calvino at night, and blah blah blah you see? Calvino has been so thoroughly taken up into all my other reading and writing that I had no need to read Cities, except to prove to myself that (a certain other project of mine) should exist, which I knew already.

The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers)

Uncle Joe in guru mode. Inspirational mind-candy. Moyers’s questions are somewhat repetitiously New-Agey, not a term I use lightly; Campbell shows off an admirably wide-ranging intellect. A uniquely flavourful dish served with a large-ish quantity of syrup.

Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau, tr. Barbara Wright)

Mini-fictions in that vaguely academic midcentury French mode, beloved of a certain kind of intellectual male: the same scene repeated 99 times in different styles, toward a mix of literary and philosophical ends. Not exactly Calvino-esque — he was a fabulist, this is a philosophical/narratological (vs narrative) experiment — but reading this hard on the heels of Invisible Cities was a stark reminder of what/how I used to read twenty years ago, and for the most part no longer do. And my biases aside, the Exercises are genuinely funny and even educational. Certainly they’re a demonstration of the flexibility of written language. Kudos to translator Barbara Wright for doing the impossible with wit and (obvsly) style.

Proof (David Auburn)

It’s nice to see naturalistic contemporary dialogue in the mouths of smart young characters, and the structure is impressive, but if you’re going to do math in drama, you have to get it right and avoid mystefaction and vague abstraction. The math in Proof is generic, like the swordfighting in a bad action picture: auburn dramatizes the central amaaaaaazing achievement by having a character talk at length about how amaaaaaazing it is. (We know one character has ‘a touch of mathematical genius’ because she knows a random mathematical fact. In terms of the math, it’s that kind of play.)

The ‘human drama’ is artfully handled. It’s a clever play. But as it seemed to me to be neither beautiful nor strange — rather, a conventional play that I instantly felt I’d read/seen before — I must say I was disappointed, and am now irritated. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. (My wife liked it.)

SAGA, Book 2 (BKV and Fiona Staples)

Devoured this long-awaited hardcover just before bedtime, hours after it arrived in the mail. Eighteen issues of the same trick as Book 1: in broad terms, Vaughan is telling a small, complicatedly progressive story about a child reckoning with the complicated marriage of her two young parents, with Big Themes (some awfully familiar to readers of the otherwise very different Y: The Last Man) rendered in bold strokes. Staples is painting a psychedelic kitchen-sink space-fantasy with that small story at the center of it. There’s nothing else quite like it in American comics, as far as I know. I love it, I want to know what happens next, it’s obvious BKV likes being a father, and you have to take it for what it is: a madly tragic picaresque and not a contemporary serial drama like Y.

(Pia Guerra contributes two drawings to the hardcover, one depicting an auto-fellating dragon, and I’m reminded that she’s one of my favourite comics artists ever, maybe the best in the business at subtle facial expression. I do miss her work.)

Four things to read.

Not ‘news,’ still timely:

B.R. Myers on North Korean propaganda, internal and external:

It’s an undiplomatic point to make, but the inconvenient truth is that most North Korea-watchers in the United States don’t speak Korean and don’t read Korean. They’re not able to read even the legend on a North Korean propaganda poster. So they, for decades, have had to depend on secondary sources of information, primarily in English. When they read North Korean materials, they have to read the so-called Juche Thought, because the regime has been careful to put this pseudo-ideology, this sham ideology, into English. So when foreigners want to read about North Korean ideology, they have to turn to these books on Juche thought, which really decoy them away from the true ideology.

Juche Thought is a jumble of humanist cliches like “Man is the master of all things.” This fake doctrine has absolutely no bearing on North Korean policymaking. While people are wasting their time trying to make sense of Juche Thought, the regime is propagating this race-based nationalism. Another problem we have in the United States, a little bit, is political correctness, inasmuch as we are uncomfortable attributing racist views to non-white people.

Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex) on motte-and-bailey arguments:

Post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”, and there’s an uncontroversially correct meaning there. We don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society; for example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay.

Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas a great big nuclear furnace. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along…

John Holbo’s (nearly 15-years-old!!) critique of David Frum’s conservatism:

The funny thing about this book is: it isn’t nearly as bad I just made it sound. I don’t think Frum is obsessed with beards or anything, actually. He sometimes seems like a pretty sharp guy. The middle chapters – full of history and policy detail, so forth – are quite cogent. Just the main chapters have problems. Frum has written a book about the need for a reflective, conservative philosophy. And: that’s the one thing he hasn’t got. He just has no clue why he is a conservative, or why being one might be a good idea – or even what ‘conservatism’ ought to mean. Whenever he starts trying to talk about that stuff, his mind just goes blank and he fantasizes about shaving beards and the Donner party.

Daniel Davies’s ‘One Minute MBA,’, which may possess more value-per-word than any other blogpost yet written:

Anyway, the secret to every analysis I’ve ever done of contemporary politics has been, more or less, my expensive business school education (I would write a book entitled “Everything I Know I Learned At A Very Expensive University”, but I doubt it would sell). About half of what they say about business schools and their graduates is probably true, and they do often feel like the most collossal [sic] waste of time and money, but they occasionally teach you the odd thing which is very useful indeed. Here’s a few of the ones I learned which I considered relevant to judging the advisability of the Second Iraq War.

Lately: Maxayn, Grimes, Sinatra.

Maxayn, Maxayn (1972)

Hedonistic funk-soul jams receding, without making any profound impact, into the sonic murk of early 70s Rhodes/sex/cosmos mind-expansion. Because that’s lately been my favourite kind of music, I dig this — especially the two(!) Stones covers, extra-especially ‘What You Want,’ which points up how black the Stones were and definitely weren’t. Illustrative song title: ‘Doing Nothing, Nothing Doing.’ Groovy.

Grimes, Art Angels (2015)

An interesting dance-pop album. The genderiffic piss-take ‘Kill v Maim’ includes the line ‘Italiano mob-star looking so precious,’ which is funny — it was funny when The Sopranos made the same joke — but I’m not sure it’d be as funny, or funny the same way, or at any rate if the same people’d let themselves be seen laughing about it, if the lyric went ‘Africano gang-star…’ Which is one reason I’m more interested in the ‘pop’ than the ‘interesting,’ never mind the (at my age?!) ‘dance.’ Musically…well, it’s an ‘interesting’ ‘dance-pop’ album made by one Canadian weirdo, what do you expect? Jazz? There are kick-drums and handclaps; I prefer jazz. I dig it, though, particularly ‘California’ and ‘Flesh Without Blood’ and ‘Belly of the Beat’ and honestly half the songs on the album…but if the thinkpieces write themselves then you can delete yours and move on to the next thing, which (this being dance-pop) everyone will, sooner than weird smart uncertain little Claire Boucher deserves. Oh, but one more thing first: the Janelle Monae track’s a dud.

Grimes, Visions (2012)

More, um, ‘psych-tronica’-ish? Also more like Devo — and therefore more my style, but I don’t remember a note. Art Angels is, I think, correctly labeled her ‘breakthrough’ album.

Sinatra on Capitol Records (1954-62)

Read this. OK now:

As a kid I loved the movie High Society, which brought together three of the great 20th century singers, Satchmo and Bing and Frank, though I didn’t understand its significance when I first saw it. Here’s a Crosby/Sinatra duet from that film: float on those voices, savour Sinatra’s drunk bit and his obvious affection for his childhood idol, and experience the profound parallax that comes of hearing two ‘crooners’ (the guy who first popularized the style, and the guy who took it further than anyone else) singing so dramatically differently and yet meeting in the middle for the sake of the piece.

This scene’s still a wakeup call for me: to most people my age, Sinatra and Crosby may as well be the same guy. To me, growing up on Broadway soundtracks and wearing out the grooves on a double LP compilation called The Fabulous Fifties and having no adolescent connection to rock counterculture, Sinatra ‘must be one of the newer fellas.’

I’ve been reading Robert Graves’s Greek Mythology and a recent translation of the Poetic Edda, thinking about cultural legacies and what we’ll leave behind when we inevitably pass — thinking too about what to teach my son about ‘America’ in all its forms. And I’ve been listening to Sinatra’s Capitol albums. The ‘American Songbook,’ as it’s quite properly known.

The ‘Sinatra sound’ for modern ears is probably that of his comparatively ‘schmaltzy’ Reprise incarnation — ‘New York, New York,’ ‘My Kind of Town,’ ‘My Way.’ But I’ve come to prefer the comparatively understated swing of his Capitol recordings, working with older material which had and has, crucially, an independent life beyond Sinatra’s own interpretations. Sinatra’s relationship to the standards is that of poet to myth: the moment of the song is always about the moment, communion between singer and listener, but away from status questions the poet/singer’s real work is clearer: honouring the song itself, and the private stories which over time have interwoven with it. Young Sinatra’s famous textual study, his unusual attention not only to prosody but to the stories ‘his’ songs told, helped him avoid the self-aggrandizement which ‘solo’ pop performance often tends to — he knew instinctively what novelists and poets must learn, that specificity is key to universality. Of course he got famous: he looked good and did his homework, even the extra-credit questions.

The book of American standards is our body of myth, capturing a mix of voices (white, black, gay, straight, upper- and lower-class) at a moment of rapid tumultuous integration, reworked and reimagined so many times over the last century that — even fallen from favour as those songs now are — they’re still central to our many ideas of America. The figures evoked in midcentury popular song are as fantastically real to us as Zeus and Odin were to our forerunners in the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, incarnated in performance to confirm their secret presence in the everyday. And our great artists do seem to see themselves, with surprising consistency, in isomorphic terms — even if each artist’s language is very different. Service to something beyond the self, an idea which envelops creator and audience, forerunners and descendants, and which reminds us of both our smallness and our role in holding together the Weave: this idea can be metaphysical (the source, the cosmic vibration, God) or psychological (the Muse, the inner voice, ‘genius’) or historical (the tradition, the songbook, ‘ideas’ as such)…for artists at their peak, it’s always there in one form or another. The metaphor changes, its referent never does.

Beyond the music — he really was one of his century’s great artists — these albums preserve some of America’s ideas of itself. Beneath the voice, a chorus of voices. Here’s one thing I love: he sounds like a guy from a poor neighbourhood in the northeast who’s worked as hard as any well heeled opera singer to master his instrument. He spins a fantasy, knows it, and means it all the same, which is one of my ideas of America — one which I don’t mind teaching my son, which isn’t what I came to this music for but thanks, Mr Sinatra, all the same.

As for the music: you should hear every one of these songs. The worst of them are maybe our greatest singer at his peak. The best of them are national Scripture.

Some games for kids, September 2016.

Pokémon Trading Card Game

Much simpler than Magic, but for players who aren’t already TCG/LCG experts — especially kids — there’s enough tactical business to make for a satisfying experience. The biggest flaw in the game might be its presentation: the prebuilt ‘theme decks’ are essentially useless. I’m offended, frankly, by the difference between casual ‘just got a theme deck for my birthday, let’s see what this game is’ play and actual Pokémon-as-she-is-spoke. Decks are divided into Pokémon (cute monsters that attack and take damage), Supporters (which modify attacks, allow extra card draws and actions, etc.), and energy (which you attach to Pokémon in order to attack); the theme decks include tons of Pokémon because that’s what little kids like, and very few functional but uninspiring Supporter cards. As a result, beginners end up sitting there waiting for the right cards to pop up in the deck. Meanwhile, advanced players will have loaded their decks with draw/shuffle cards to ‘accelerate’ play, without which strategy isn’t actually possible.

Even my son, at five years old, picked up on the overimportance of luck in theme-deck-only play — but once I bought a few hundred random cards online, including lots of Supporter cards, we felt like we were playing a proper game, and both strategic (deckbuilding) and tactical choices began to matter.

If your five- or six-year-old reads well (lots of technical jargon on the cards) and likes the silly characters, this is a perfect starter card game; if nothing else, it’s fun to collect the stupid little Pokémon themselves, as the popularity of the Pokémon Go ‘game’ demonstrates. Be prepared to do some shuffling for your kid, and consider spending $4 on some sleeves to extend the life of the cards. Unlike Magic, you won’t still play this one in ten years, though plenty of kids certainly will.

Catan Junior

Exactly what it says on the tin: a subtly re-themed version of Settlers with essentially no strategic choices.

  • no variable probability for the hexes (only one die is rolled)
  • no random hex placement
  • no strategic pregame settlement/road placement (starting locations are fixed)
  • no stealing with the Pirate/Thief
  • much looser constraints on building (Lairs/Settlements can share a hex side)
  • no long roads
  • no Cities, just Lairs/Settlements
  • …and in the basic rules, no p2p trading — there’s a clever market/stockpile trading setup to replicate the use of ports in Settlers

So what’s left? A couple of paths to victory pretty dependent on luck, lots of social interaction during play, and that ol’ familiar feeling of mounting excitement as your settlements generate wealth. Oh, and no reading! Not a factor for my son but kids who aren’t yet comfortable reading will appreciate the design.

Is it a good game for kids? Well, look again at the changes Teuber made to his basic design: changes to setup mean you can’t essentially lose before the dice start rolling as you might in Settlers; no stealing and close-together Lairs means fewer hard feelings, and the clever ports-only trading setup smooths out the social dynamics at the table. Luck plays a big part as in the original game, but the Junior rules mitigate its most frustrating effects. It’s a thoughtful and intentional kids’ design.

If you love Settlers, you’ll get a kick out of this miniature variant edition. Our son (age six) enjoyed our initial play. This is a lightweight German game aimed at kids, much less demanding than Settlers and nowhere near as satisfying, but it does what it sets out to do — and it really does seem to be a perfect introduction to Teuber’s canonical original game. In fact, it made me want to play Settlers right away.

Carcassonne (plus expansions)

Honestly, I recommend Carcassonne over Catan Junior for kids who’ve played a couple of games beyond Candyland (which, for all its miserable determinism, is still a superb teaching tool). No reading in this classic game either. And best of all, the only subtle strategic decision — whether and when to join the ‘farmstakes’ — can simply be taken out in favour of a dead simple introductory game that more heavily weights randomness: just do cities, roads, and cloisters, and don’t bother with farms. Easy sneezy. The only remaining planning elements, then, are:

  • how many meeples to keep in hand
  • how many construction projects to focus on at a time
  • how far in advance to start the endgame, where you’ll deliberately leave projects unfinished

Attention spans matter, of course; my son can’t be bothered to attend to the difference between finished and unfinished cities in terms of endgame scoring, and plays tactically rather than strategically (we use the full rules). But tile and meeple placement are addictive and easy to understand, so you can play Carcassonne as a super-casual kids’ game with almost no strategic decision-making if you like.

The expansions are not equally fun. I’ve only played two with my son:

Inns & Cathedrals is to the original as Dominion: Intrigue is to Dominion: a subtler, more powerful version of the base game. An essential expansion, though the big meeples will take a little explaining. The Princess & the Dragon, on the other hand, is more like the Possession card in Dominion: Alchemy, adding a strategy-wrecking element (the dragon, which eats meeples) and making the game more cutthroat. My son loves it, but it makes the game…nuttier, and if the dragon ends up eating the wrong meeple, you risk tears. The River isn’t terribly exciting (we haven’t bothered with it) but it takes nothing away and essentially divides the ‘farm stakes’ into — pardon the metaphor — wholly separate Westeros and Essos games.

I used to like Carcassonne a lot — it’s a fun, relatively light game suitable for non-gamers — but with my son joining in, I’ve come to love it. We’ve got a couple more expansions (The Count, The Tower) that I look forward to revisiting. My son doesn’t yet grasp the various strategic angles, but that’s mostly a matter of him sitting still and paying attention — in terms of cognitive load, the full Carcassonne experience seems readily available to a bright six-year-old.

Recap

At this point, my son has played the following tabletop games (in addition to Candyland-style trivial games and some young kids’ games I can’t remember the names of):

  • King of Tokyo (heavy reading, simple math)
  • King of New York (heavy reading, slightly less simple math)
  • Carcassonne (no reading, little to no math)
  • Catan Junior (no reading, no math)
  • Munchkin Treasure Hunt (no reading, simple math)
  • Pokémon TCG (heavy reading, some math)
  • X-Wing Miniatures Game (heavy reading, complex dynamics, math)

We’ve played King of NYC, Munchkin Treasure Hunt, and X-Wing most, and unsurprisingly he’s best at those. MTH has no real strategy to it — it’s meant as a gateway to the not-terribly-deep Munchkin card game — and while it’s a good deal more involved than Candyland (which isn’t a game, strictly speaking), its only real demand on kids is basic arithmetic. An easy recommendation for step two in board-game education. King of NYC is a more involved game that my son seems to have a firm grasp on; he doesn’t play optimally, but his main failing at King is his stubborn refusal to leave Manhattan, which I totally understand. Anyhow, I assume most young kids will wanna be boss monster too…

(King of Tokyo is a simpler game even better suited to kids’ play — indeed I recommend it for families looking to move on to lightweight German-style games — but my wife, son, and I all enjoy NYC more.)

X-Wing is a really great minis combat game, but too complex in its complete form (i.e. including ships and cards beyond the Core Set) for five-year-olds. My son and I have been playing it for months, but I have to help him manage his upgrade cards and special abilities, which are the heart of the expanded game. That said, my son can now plan his moves a turn ahead, which is thrilling to see — I’m proud that he regularly beats me, and no I don’t always give him a squad-points handicap either. This fits well with my first impression of the game: flying awesome spaceships is X-Wing‘s immediate attraction, and the easiest part for little kids to grasp.

Anyhow, the upshot here is that parents looking for interesting games to play with their kids have a wealth of good options today, and I’m really enjoying raising my son to be not only an adventurer, artist, writer, athlete, sage, badass, scientist, engineer, pirate, destroyer of worlds, trustworthy friend, cool easygoing brilliant robot-making dweeb…but also a proper gamer.

Favourite (not best?) movies.

Spirited Away. The most complexly melancholy ‘children’s movie’ I know, and one of the most visually imaginative. Perfect, if a movie can be perfect.

Southland Tales. A ecstatic psychedelic-apocalyptic mess, eagerly courting ridicule, with the curious haunted quality of Kelly’s precocious Donnie Darko but none of that movie’s emotional maturity or restraint. In some sense, surely the most Phildickian film ever.

She Hate Me. A symphony like the more coherent Bamboozled, where Do the Right Thing was a taut chamber piece. I jokingly call Southland Tales ‘the white She Hate Me,’ which is to say they’re both ‘fantasias on national themes’ (cf. Angels in America) which seem to resemble, too closely for viewer comfort, the interiors of their respective creators’ heads.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This one holds an odd place in the pantheon: in some respects it’s a Western arthouse film, with the familiar emotional palette and granularity of an episode of Mad Men, but which happens to be about wuxia movies. Luckily it’s also a superb wuxia specimen. I fell for this one in the theater, where the crowd burst into applause after the first fight between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. Few ‘action films’ have so expertly communicated the emotional states and stakes of their martial sequences. Yuen Wo Ping’s fight choreography inspires awe, but you’ve seen The Matrix so you knew that. What matters is that the fight scenes are also the most emotionally compelling dramatic exchanges in this (moving) film, even for a Western viewer — they’re shot, cut, and acted to tell perfectly formed stories. There are more visually arresting movies in its artsy-wuxia niche, but none that so effortlessly incorporate Western dramatic arts.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? My lit-theory professor told me each Coen Bros film was a play on a time and a place — they’re moving portraits of cultural moments, real and imagined. O Brother portrays the mythology of the Depression-era South. You can turn off the gorgeous visuals, ignore the snappy dialogue and egoless acting, and marvel at the sound: it’s a musical, the best of modern times, with the most thematically coherent (also beautiful) soundtrack of all. Better and deeper than its reputation.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Two unique creators at the height of their powers, served by a master actress and an extraordinary (and widely misused and misunderstood) comic actor, tell a simple story about falling in love and falling out of love. The final movement is shattering. On a date early in our relationship, my not-yet-wife scolded me for being ‘demonstrative’ by sighing constantly during this film. She was right and can piss off.

Gremlins. The great Christmas movie of the 80s.

E.T. The scientists. And then the bicycle.

Ghostbusters. OK yes: funny, groovy, mean spirited, with heaping doses of perfect eliptonic twaddle and two genuinely creepy scenes. And OK yes, Bill Murray. But not Bill Murray, master comic improviser, which everybody already knows about. This is glory: Bill Murray, dramatic improviser, suddenly turning in celebratory circles in the park as the music swells and Sigourney Weaver walks away smiling. What are the chances that a high-concept comic romp with half a script could offer a throwaway moment of romantic perfection?

Hedwig & the Angry Inch. Blah blah ‘not real rock & roll’ and the final song suffers somewhat for being sung by Trask instead of Mitchell. But what other film works at this particular pitch?

Magnolia. Go ahead and make fun, and I’ll just sit here and enjoy watching a perfectly realized work of musical and dramatic and cinematic art, deliriously in love with its own voice, which climaxes in the middle with the wordless administration of a dropper full of morphine by a hospice nurse.

Some imaginary combination of the Matrix films. If I could cut the second and third films together in a way that would make you understand that the entire trilogy (and not just the first film) is a classic work of sci-fi, I would do so.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Not perfect like Raiders, not wonderfully grotesque like Temple of Doom. But: ‘You left just when you were becoming interesting.’ And: ‘I thought I lost you, boy.’ (And come to think of it: ‘If you are Scottish, lord, then I am Mickey Mouse.’) The tank battle is one of the great action setpieces, the score is sweetly sad, and it should have ended here.

Stop Making Sense. The rapturous final batch of songs make the case for the boundary-shattering power of groove as eloquently as any weird little hyper-controlled art flick ever has.

La Jetee. Inseparable, in my mind, from the Left Bank film festival where I first saw it — well after being knocked over by Twelve Monkeys, which I like more but value less. And that one shot (if you know, you know) is, for me, a small sacred thing: the incarnation and withdrawal of a goddess.

High School. What does evil look like? Maybe it looks like the final frames of this extraordinary, essential, still-relevant documentary.

Fight Club. Weighed down by cultural baggage, none of it interesting, this film is no longer held in the esteem it deserves. Never mind that it’s a virtuosic catalogue of cinematic technique; never mind that it’s really funny; never mind that This Really Is How It Feels Sometimes. How many films ever move this swiftly and smartly for two hours?

Blade Runner. Here’s how much this movie does right: the three-hour audio remix from Don Joyce’s Over the Edge radio show is one of the classic works of sci-fi all by itself, even without the epochal visual design.

Punch-Drunk Love. That score. Those moving colour splashes. Several moments of such light and sweetness they’re nearly unbearable. Several sequences of profound, courageous discomfort. Two daft dialogue scenes between Adam Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who couldn’t possibly be less well matched and yet and yet and yet and oh my God two of the most beautiful kisses ever put to film.

Princess Bride. You’d think it’d be enough, filming the best of all American movie swordfights. You’d think they’d’ve been satisfied, giving the world Vizzini’s mad hubristic Battle of Wits and the rise and fall and transformation and apotheosis of Inigo Montoya. But no. They insisted on wrapping those moments up in a flawless old-fashioned comedy. Bit of cheek, isn’t it.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Terry Gilliam’s film has a classic orchestral score (conducted with rare wit), a lovely little moebius-strip of a story, and a light-operatic whimsy which leavens and complements Gilliam’s characteristic visual grotesquerie.

The Empire Strikes Back. Meticulously staged expressionist art film, all vivid colours and expert genre pastiche and lightly handled iconic tableaux, referring to dimly remembered but irrelevant backstory. Or, in Andrew Rilstone’s (possibly misremembered-by-me) words: ‘…as if Leigh Brackett picked up George Lucas’s Star Wars action figures and started acting out Hamlet with them.’

Chungking Express. Shot for peanuts, half improvised, in a few weeks between takes of a bigger-budget film. Wong Kar-Wai has made better films (In the Mood for Love, for instance) but this is a tiny magic spell with as strong a sense of place as any other movie.

The Singing Detective. If I could preserve a single screen performance (that I’m aware of) of the 20th century, it’d be Michael Gambon’s.

Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. This is mastery. This is the old way. Jay is a singular human being, and this film of his stage show is the essential document of his unique art.

Lazily listening lately. Lightly! LOL

Brass Construction, Brass Construction (1975)

A better party than either of us ever gets invited to. OK but cavalier gotta cavil: Building a funk band around brass (no pun intended) risks inflexibility, inelasticity — a half-century of sophomore band geeks putting together dormroom funk bands lights up the low ceiling on improvisatory and stylistic freedom that the format affords. This is a good brass-heavy funk band, complete with cowbell&violins and some passionately undistinguished belting on the mic, but they’re missing the omnihedonic centrifugal anarchy of (say) Parliament, who were putting out straight lunacy while this was going on. I choose to believe the song titles are Miles tribute, and I ride my bike faster with this playing.

Neil Ardley, Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (1976)

Here’s something interesting: tightly conceived maybe-partly-aleatoric-by-the-sound-of-it psychedelic funk/jazz/prog fusion, quite distinct from Ardley’s New Jazz Orchestra stuff (far as I’ve heard). Snobs wouldn’t mark the opener ‘experimental’ but it’s that: ten minutes of relentlessly fractalizing Crimson-style mathematical architecture — accessibly modal in raw material — which bursts cinematically into funk-blues colours. The rest of the album works variations on that harmonic material, so if you’re listening hard for boring old ‘chords’ and ‘scales’ and that other Dead White Guy stuff, your ear might tire a little by the end. But the grooves vary and the finale gives over to fleet guitar/soprano sax solos (warn the critics, oh no) before a triumphant, subtly rearranged climactic statement of the opening assemblage (a more politely jazzish Tweeprise, for any ‘phans’ reading this). I was surprised to hear this somewhat perverse experiment carried to this length; doubly so to hear it done so enjoyably.

Dreamworld, On Flight to the Light (1980)

Charmingly committed to ideas way way way beyond their abilities, they’ve titled the twenty-minute closing suite ‘Dreamworld’s Symphony’ — an own goal. Not enough compositional or improvisatory resources on hand to make anything of the concept, so it drags even when the tempos get up, which they don’t always, and then the singing starts: basically the tiresome Japanese busker from Can, playing Kermit the Frog on downers. I have a lot of time for spacey psych-rock fusion, but this tried my patience from first to last. Not recommended.

Software, Chip-Meditation (1985)

Creepy proto-chiptune patterns, ambient synth FX, and the kind of gutless drumbeats that I think the cool kidz use German words to describe, if we’re still allowed to suggest that some kids aren’t cool. Also a Mandelbrot cover image, and the first track’s titled ‘Julias-Dream’ which for a certain kind of geek should trigger memories and a smile. Books I’ve read with mounting pleasure and discomfort while this album played: Victoria Nelson’s Secret Life of Puppets with its nightmare-inducing cover image, M John Harrison’s Viriconium, IP Couliano’s Out of This World (published in 1991, the year he was murdered), Tana French’s In the Woods. It was the only album I listened to while at Disney World. I don’t understand how this mathy bit of early electronica could possibly be one of my favourite albums right now, but it is. If you let it soak into the atmosphere of your day it will weird you out. Listen closely for the Sign of the Lotus. Remember not to close your eyes. Descend.

A couple of album reviews…

…to make sure the wheels are properly oiled. One of these things is not like the others, of course.

Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence

Paradoxically (or not, I suppose), her/their individual songs seem small and tired when set end to end — you’d be forgiven for calling them ‘all the same song.’ But with just one feeling or idea in your quiver you don’t have to work too hard to build a coherent psychic topology, as long as it’s an interesting feeling or idea, which I’m not sure ‘resentful exhaustion’ is, though it sure does sound pretty. And maybe it is interesting; I keep listening, after all. Perfect for a long nighttime ride on a crowded bus, or walking alone through a busy square; well adjusted grownups will need only a small dose, and will feel bad afterward. Which is, I’ve decided, not interesting after all. But it still sounds pretty.

Master Musicians of Jajouka, Pipes of Pan at Jajouka

A ‘visionary’ experience overflows formula, refuses to simplify to convention. Visions are by definition irreligious: they emerge whole from a whole person, unbound, unconsidered. True visions are revolutionary by nature, and any institution built upon a vision — rather than, say, an earthly desire — will sell it out in time. Can’t help it.

Creative work that’s centrally concerned with visionary experience corresponds to our rule-based notions of Art only by accident, in passing.

Brian Jones’s dubby ‘field recording’ of these Sufi musicians is beautiful the way biting a lover’s lip and drawing blood can be beautiful: the danger and pain flow directly from the experience’s intimate intensity. I won’t try to talk here about the music itself; if you’re not in the mood for a specific brand of abrasively nasal horn playing and odd-meter drumming, it’s probably going to put you off. But if you think you could fall in love with a creature from another species, another planet — if you can let go of your standards of ‘taste’ altogether and move instead to a frequency human ears can’t usually detect — then you absolutely must hear this recording.

Ornette Coleman, ‘Midnight Sunrise’

Coleman traveled to Jajouka in the mid-70s to play with the aformentioned Master Musicians, and what remains of the night’s collaboration is two tracks totaling less than nine minutes of music, available on the expanded Dancing in Your Head album he cut with his Prime Time group. (The Jajouka experience is what inspired Coleman to put together Prime Time in the first place.) The recording is just what you’d expect: the masters to one side, the mystic on the other. Ornette’s discursive responses to their partly improvised figures sound like tongue-talking, i.e. like all of Ornette’s solos. The recordings are deeply, inexplicably beautiful, especially the feverish alternate take with Robert Palmer joining in on clarinet. From here it’s a short flight to the rest of this classic ‘harmolodic funk’ album.

Dave Holland Quartet, Conference of the Birds

Intensely focused play based on melodies which live up to both the title story’s ludic naturalism and its mysticism. Listening to this one right after spending some time in Ornette’s musical world, as I’ve just done, is like returning from space to find out that in your five-year absence human speech has advanced a millennium, is now unrecognizable. Braxton and Rivers complement each other perfectly, Altschul’s drums are everywhere, and beneath and within the ensemble is Holland’s mighty bass playing. The album’s vision is perfectly coherent, expressed in deep melody and rigorous freeform. I’m embarrassed not to have heard this until recently, but I’m making up for the oversight by listening to it every day. And taking notes.

Grateful Dead, Cobo 1976 (Set II)

Surely someone out there has made the case for 1976 being the Dead’s best year, right? 1977 is where the new kids start, 1972-74 is the convergence, but shows like Cobo 76 — with its darkly beautiful Playin’ > Wheel > Good Lovin’ > Comes a Time > Dancin’ > Not Fade Away > Dancin’ > Around & Around sequence — capture a band that hasn’t yet backed away from its jazzesque early-70s approach but can already muster 1977’s swaggering danceadelia. Seamless performance, intoxicating atmosphere, and not a moment of filler.

Quick hits of the 1970s: Brief music reviews!

Terje Rypdal, After the Rain (1976)

Is this what people think Phish sounds like? This album is essentially a 38-minute guitar solo with bits of synth, piano, sax, and actual tubular bells, all played by the maximally Norwegian neoclassical/fusion guy, Mr Rypdal himself. (There’s also a singer, Rypdal’s wife Inger.) Because there’s next to no movement of any kind — this is the Platonic ideal of the ‘ECM album,’ down to the title and cover photo — the guitar ruminations bear sole responsibility for sustaining interest. If you can find time in your busy day for David Gilmour, make time for this; if like me you’d rather have your arm hair pulled out slow than listen to David Gilmour for more than three minutes at a time, give it a listen just to know what the platonic ideal of the ECM album sounds like.

Bruce Palmer, The Cycle Is Complete (1971)

Rick James(!!) plays percussion and improvises some vocals. A cast of hippie-bluesy sorts improvise some grooves. Random sound effects are tipped in, including what sounds like a mandolin and violin being pleasurably misused. This goes on for some time, and is as interesting as it sounds.

Earth and Fire, Atlantis (1973)

If you heard Jesus Christ Superstar and thought to yourself, What this shit needs is fewer gorgeous melodies and more hippie-folksy mystical nonsense about Atlantis! then have I got the album for you!

Ramsey Lewis, Sun Goddess (1974)

Even middle-of-the-road jazz/funk/soul fusion has an intrinsic pleasantness — clav, Rhodes, and bass-bop will always get you to a place if you let them. This is better than that. Most of Earth Wind & Fire are in the band, burbling along funkybreezylike without ever coming to a full boil. ‘Jungle Strut’ gets porny, ‘Hot Dawgit’ stays cool, and the six-minute closer ‘Gemini Rising’ bites some of Herbie’s early-70s moves (including a bit of free percussive noisemaking up front) before jazzing out. Not exactly worldshaking, this, but how much shaking can your world really take? Bedroom music for moderns with a sense of humour.

Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes, Reflections of a Golden Dream (1976)

‘Get Down Everybody (It’s Time for World Peace)’ is the most 70s song title of all time. They really mean it. I like the insistent Parliament-ish polyrhythms of ‘Peace & Love’ better than the disco-era moves of the next track, ‘Beautiful Woman,’ though I prefer the latter title. ‘Inner Beauty’ could be an Alice Coltrane track; ‘Journey Into Space’ could be Hassell/Eno. I hope world peace and sexual liberation are inextricably linked like Smith and the Echoes seem to think; rather a waste of 39 minutes of fine psych/soul erotica otherwise.

Scientist, Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires (1981, but who’s counting)

So, ummm…is all dub boring?

Two games for children.

Munchkin Treasure Hunt is a dead simple board game based on SJGames’s beer’n’pretzels Munchkin card game (which I’ve only played once). It involves some simple arithmetic and very little long-range planning. Its art is charming, though kids won’t pay too much attention to it after they start thinking abstractly about points. (It’s ‘fluff.’) My son, age five, quite likes the game — but for my wife and me it’s barely a game at all. Initial card distribution plays a big role in the eventual outcome, and there’s really no way for players to claw their way back once they fall behind. It takes a longish while to play — 30 minutes, maybe? It seems long.

It is, nonetheless, an ideal gateway to more complex but still kid-friendly games, like…

…Richard Garfield’s King of Tokyo, which is perfect for sub-Catan casual play and can be completed in 15-25 minutes no problem. Strategywise, my 5yo son is still figuring it out, but in a few months I think he’ll be able to come back to it and get something close to the full experience. My wife and I quite enjoy the game. It benefits from a larger group — with only three players, the titular ‘King of Tokyo’ mechanic doesn’t quite apply enough pressure. Interesting tactical choices, room for long-term strategy…man, I can’t say enough about this game.

I’ve heard that the more complex sequel, King of New York, is even better. I think we’re gonna grab that one for Christmas (we’re just borrowing Tokyo).

More ambient/psych/otherwise reviews.

Shortish album reviews. What’s that, you say? Someone’s working out a private agon with Christgau by blogging irritable album reviews? Surely not.

Auburn Lull, Alone I Admire (2nd try)

In the earbuds on Repeat during, say, a long bicycle ride, its lack of shape, direction, variety, or ambition ceased to be a liability — came to seem like the whole point, really, affording passage to a New State of Mind, though I wonder now whether the specific state should matter more to me. I’ve no idea if he’s singing actual words; the idea of directly expressing something other than ‘I’m walking in the woods in cold weather thinking about a girl with a boy’s name who wears parkas and doesn’t have too many tattoos but spiritually I’m six years old lost at the shopping mall again, wondering if my mom and dad’s impending divorce which they won’t talk to me about means that no one will come to find me,’ i.e. Freudesque ground zero ‘indie’ something-or-other, seems anathema. Wait, did I say ‘spiritually’? I meant ‘psychologically,’ and no I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Caldera, Time and Chance

Much less tiresome on first listen than the title of the ECM-pastoral opening track ‘The Arousing / Reviviscence’ would suggest; but also less interesting over additional listenings than the flash guitar initially seems. Flamenco samba yes yes, and a track named ‘Magewind’ very definitely yes — it has a ‘vamp while Ms Minelli changes costumes’ quality, which I do mean as a compliment — but while nearly everything here is expert and tasteful, the music doesn’t take me anywhere in particular. Not the barrio, certainly, but not the Kuiper Belt either, at least until penultimate miniature ‘Shanti’ (running time 3:56) kicks off an interstellar soul cruise you could imagine Roy Ayers scoring at, big time. I wondered why I’d never heard of them, but the Internet tells me that’s because no one ever heard of them. Unfair but unsurprising. Worth a listen; you might find a surprise or two inside.

Medeski Martin & Wood, ‘Hey Joe’

Playing ‘All the Things You Are’ isn’t thought of as a ‘cover,’ but doing a Hendrix tune (or a cover he claimed as his own) involves a different kind of interaction with the (Rock) Tradition — it’s an event, an overt citation, in a way that reuse/repurposing of jazz/blues materials, or even early- and mid-20C popular song, just isn’t. Rock’s emancipation from the common practice tradition of jazz tied songs’ identities to (recorded) electric sonics above all, which means that MMW’s sacramental performances of ‘Hey Joe’ can’t help but refer to Hendrix’s devastating studio recording of same. And so Charlie Hunter’s quotes of both Hendrix’s indelible ‘Hey Joe’ riff — and a few seconds later, his similarly iconic ‘Angel’ riff — in his solo at the 1/14/99 show make complexly perfect sense; they’re playing a show at the Bowery in honour of Blue Note Records, but (as Roland would say) the world has moved on, and the tradition passes through the record. Each of the three solos (Hunter, saxman Jay Rodriguez, Medeski’s own) replicates the tsunamic crash of Hendrix’s original performance; the same goes for Marc Ribot’s skronking solo three nights later, with Billy Martin beating the shit out of his drums behind Medeski’s distorto keyboards. Even the slow 6/8 rendering with Danny Blume on the 15th follows that contour. It is, I would note, more than perfectly satisfying; the Hunter/Rodriguez version is one of my favourite live recordings. I mention it only to point out its address to the recorded tradition. To Jimi. To rock.

Yet Robert Randolph and Ribot find their way to something new, by which I mean very old, in their 10/31/00 performance of ‘Hey Joe,’ which Medeski sticking mostly to Hammond organ and Randolph’s pedal steel calling spirits out of the swamp. The air gets so thick that the band never actually finishes the performance — they just stop, hushed and awed, with no solo from Medeski. It’d seem awkward or a misstep if it weren’t obviously a surrender to the power of something deep and terrible, terrible like a rainstorm or a just swordstroke.